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Measuring Violence Against Women: Statistical Trends 2006

By Holly Johnson, Statistics Canada

Violence against women is a persistent and ongoing problem in Canada and around the world. It affects women’s social and economic equality, physical and mental health, well-being and economic security.

Decision-makers require a clear understanding of the nature and severity of social problems in order to develop effective responses. In 2002, the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Status of Women Ministers released Assessing Violence Against Women: A Statistical Profile. The Profile introduced a number of violence indicators that are intended to monitor changes over time, serve as benchmarks, and highlight emerging problems. This updated edition revisits these indicators, expands upon them, and assesses the current situation.

According to the Beijing Platform for Action adopted at the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women in 1995:

Violence against women is an obstacle to the achievement of the objectives of equality, development and peace. Violence against women both violates and impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women of their human rights and fundamental freedoms. The long-standing failure to protect and promote those rights and freedoms in the case of violence against women is a matter of concern to all States and should be addressed. (paragraph 112)

The Beijing Platform for Action also emphasized the importance of reliable statistical data in understanding violence against women and recommended that work be done to:

promote research, collect data and compile statistics, especially concerning domestic violence relating to the prevalence of different forms of violence against women, and encourage research into the causes, nature, seriousness and consequences of violence against women and the effectiveness of measures implemented to prevent and redress violence against women. (paragraph 129a)

Canadian governments have made important advancements in the availability of statistical data to describe the dimensions and nature of violence against women, the impacts and consequences, societal responses and supports for victims, and women’s use of criminal justice and other services. This document summarizes these data within a framework of indicators on violence against women.

Why focus on violence against women?

Until recently, researchers and statistical agencies often gathered statistics generically, compiling data on violence regardless of the gender of victims or offenders. This approach contributed to the development of general programs that addressed violence in society as a whole.

Social program and policy developers have identified instances where programs for Canadians as a whole often fail to consider the effect of gender. As an example, federal employment assistance programs are often only accessible to Canadians who work full-time or who can take full-time training. Analysis of data by gender reveals that while one-third of Canadian women voluntarily working part-time reported doing so in order to care for their children, only 4% of men gave this as a reason (Marshall 2001). Women’s traditional role in society as caregivers often limits their ability to access programs intended for all Canadians.

Generic programs meant to address violence against all Canadians risk failing to adequately address women’s experiences of violence. Gender-specific data can pinpoint those areas where the need for support services is different for women and men. It is also important to further disaggregate data (for example, by race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status or ability) in order to fully understand the situation of different groups of women.

Data that are made available by gender demonstrate the specific risk areas for men and women and highlight the need for targeted programs to address violence for each gender. Men’s and boys’ experiences of violence are different than women’s and girls’ in important ways. While men are more likely to be injured by strangers in a public or social venue, women are in greater danger of experiencing violence from intimate partners in their own homes. Women are also at greater risk of sexual violence. The fear of violence is more pervasive for women and can prevent them from taking part as full citizens in their communities.

In addition to the negative effects for women themselves, the violence women experience at the hands of their intimate partners can have profound effects on their children. Children who are exposed to violence in the home suffer from emotional trauma, have poor educational outcomes, and are at increased risk of using violence to solve problems (Berman et al. 2004). Women experiencing violence from intimate partners are sometimes forced to flee their homes with their children, which can result in unstable living situations and additional negative impacts on children.

Worldwide, violence against women is an impediment to women’s equality. According to the United Nations Population Fund (2005):

Gender-based violence is perhaps the most wide-spread and socially tolerated of human rights violations. It both reflects and reinforces inequities between men and women and compromises the health, dignity, security and autonomy of its victims.

The 1995 Federal Action Plan for Gender Equality emphasized the interconnections between equality and not only gender, but other personal characteristics:

Barriers to equality are rooted in long-standing attitudes and traditions not only about women, but also about race, age, sexual orientation, disability, colour, etc. In particular, the life situations of women outside the dominant culture—women with disabilities, Aboriginal women, women from visible minorities, elderly women, lesbians, lone mothers, women in poverty—are quite different from the mainstream. For them, the path to equality has been, and continues to be, even more difficult. Equality for all women will come about only as these attitudes, imbedded in the workplace, educational institutions and the family, are challenged and begin to change. To achieve true equality, actions must be taken that adjust for the differences in experiences and situations between women and men, and among women, and that correct the systemic nature of inequality.

The Action Plan further defines the concept of "substantive" equality, which acknowledges the systemic and structural nature of inequality. It recognizes that both freedom from discrimination and positive actions are required to arrive at equal outcomes. To achieve gender equality, the social structures that govern the relationship between men and women will need to give equal value to the different roles they play, as parents, as workers, as elected officials and others; to foster equal partnership in the decision-making process; and to build a just and equitable society.

Definitions of violence against women

Definitions of violence against women vary broadly depending on the objectives of a particular research study or policy, and on the source of the data being used. The United Nation’s 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, which was signed by Canada, provides a very broad definition that has been accepted by the international community:

any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.

Violence against women shall be understood to encompass, but not be limited to physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation; physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere; trafficking in women and forced prostitution; and physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the State, wherever it occurs.

The Canadian Criminal Code has no specific offence of violence against women or spousal assault. Code provisions that most commonly apply to cases of violence against women include the offences of assault, sexual assault, criminal harassment, threats of violence, forcible confinement and homicide. For the most part, the statistical data presented in this publication were derived from Criminal Code definitions. Types of abuse addressed in this report include the following:

1) Physical violence, including threats of violence, hitting with fists or weapons, with or without physical injury, is the most commonly understood form of abuse. All forms of physical violence are crimes under the Criminal Code.

2) Sexual violence is any form of non-consensual or forced sexual activity or touching, including rape. All forms of sexual violence are crimes under the Criminal Code. The term “sexual assault” encompasses a wide range of criminal acts ranging from unwanted sexual touching to sexual violence involving weapons, and is categorized according to three levels of severity. The term “sexual offence” refers to the three levels of sexual assault as well as other sexual offences which are designed primarily to protect children.

3) Psychological or emotional abuse includes insults, humiliation, put-downs and yelling, and extreme (often unfounded) jealousy. These are not crimes under the Criminal Code, but are often effectively used to control and intimidate intimate partners. It also includes harming pets and damaging property, which are crimes under the Criminal Code.

4) Financial abuse (also referred to as economic abuse or material exploitation) includes restricting access to family resources, inheritance or employment opportunities, or to seize pay cheques. Unless theft, fraud or some form of coercion is used, financial abuse is not a crime under the Criminal Code.

5) Spousal abuse refers to physical or sexual violence or psychological or financial abuse within current or former marital or common-law relationships, including same-sex spousal relationships. The broader category of intimate partner abuse encompasses spousal violence and violence committed by current or former dating partners.

6) Spousal assault is measured according to the Criminal Code and includes physical or sexual assault and threats of violence.

7) Spousal homicide refers to the killing of a marital or common-law partner and includes first and second degree murder and manslaughter.

8) Criminal harassment/stalking is obsessive behaviour directed toward another person. It can involve persistent, malicious and unwanted surveillance, and invasion of privacy that is a constant threat to the victim’s personal security. Criminal harassment is an offence under the Criminal Code.

Trafficking in persons is a crime under the Criminal Code. It is not addressed in this publication because of the absence of data in this area. Trafficking is the use of deception, coercion or force to recruit, move or hold a person in order to use or exploit that person against their will for the sex trade or forced labour. The US State Department, in their Trafficking in Persons Report 2005, estimates that 600,000 to 800,000 persons are trafficked across international borders each year and approximately 80 percent are women and girls. The majority of transnational victims are trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation. These estimates exclude millions of persons who are trafficked within their own national borders (US State Department 2005).

Other definitions

1) Spouses and ex-spouses includes legally married, separated and divorced persons as well as common-law spouses and ex-spouses. Also includes same-sex spouses.

2) Intimite partners and ex-partners includes spouse and ex-spouse, and current or former dating partners.

The organization of this report

The indicators of violence against women are organized into five themes in this report:

  • prevalence and severity of violence against women;
  • impact of violence against women;
  • risk factors associated with violence against women;
  • institutional and community-based responses;
  • victims’ use of services.

1) Prevalence and severity of violence against women
These indicators can help governments take stock and assess whether efforts to reduce violence against women have made a difference. Although they cannot detect whether specific programs and services have directly affected the level of violence, indicators describing the prevalence and severity of violence against women can show changes that happened at the same time as prevention and intervention efforts were underway. These indicators also help plan the delivery of services and modifications to policy and programs.

2) Impact of violence against women
These indicators monitor the impacts and consequences of victimization, including physical consequences such as injury, medical attention, hospitalization, emotional impacts, and broader societal-level impacts such as the economic costs of violence.

3) Risk factors associated with violence against women
Identifying factors that increase the risk of victimization is important for both intervention and prevention efforts. To target resources, stakeholders need to know who is at risk of what types of violence and in what situations, and who is vulnerable to multiple, chronic and ongoing victimization. Knowledge about risk factors can also help to focus prevention efforts and social service supports on sub-groups of the population that have the greatest need.

4) Institutional and community-based responses
Tracking how governments and community organizations have responded to violence against women will help address questions about the types of services available and how the availability of services has changed over time.

5) Use of services by victims
These indicators help identify how victims use services and what the barriers to obtaining help might be.

The 2002 publication, Assessing Violence Against Women: A Statistical Profile, included a sixth type of indicator: public attitudes and perceptions. While tracking societal attitudes on violence against women remains an important task, few jurisdictions have updated these surveys since 2002. This report therefore focuses on the five indicators for which current data are available.

In addition, the Federal/Provincial/Territorial (F/P/T) Status of Women Ministers felt that the situation of violence against Aboriginal women and women living in the territories warranted specific sections in this document. Recent statistics confirm what other small scale studies have found: Aboriginal women in Canada are at significantly higher risk of spousal violence than other segments of society. For the first time, residents of the three territories (Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut) were interviewed for the 2004 General Social Survey (GSS) as part of a pilot test and results show that women who live in the territories also experience higher levels of violence. However, due to undercoverage of Aboriginal people, residents of rural or remote areas and those whose mother tongue is not English or French, estimates of violence in the territories must be used with caution.

On the international stage, Canada has been taken to task for the persistent disadvantage faced by Aboriginal women in education, employment and physical safety (Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women 2003). The lack of detailed statistical data on violence against Aboriginal women has been identified as an impediment to addressing the causes of violence and ensuring access for Aboriginal women to the justice system (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 2005). The focus on Aboriginal and Northern women’s experiences of violence in this publication makes a contribution toward the goal of providing improved data for policy making.

Benefits and limitations of indicators

Violence indicators have many potential benefits. They can:

  • increase understanding of the severity and prevalence of acts of violence against women;
  • enhance awareness of community and government responses to violence;
  • serve as a “red flag” for governments and non-governmental organizations by highlighting emerging issues;
  • assist in policy-making, planning and resource allocation;
  • help identify possible points of intervention by examining factors associated with a heightened risk of violence;
  • together with other tools and information, contribute to an evaluation of efforts to reduce violence;
  • act as a catalyst for further scientific inquiry and research.

Despite these advantages, readers need to be aware of the limitations of statistical indicators, including the undercounting of victims due to the very personal nature of these experiences. In addition, while indicators may highlight problems, they cannot prescribe solutions. Nor do they necessarily show cause and effect without also taking into account other social and demographic factors.

Due to jurisdictional differences in the way policies and services to victims are organized, caution must be used when making comparisons across provinces and territories. For example, police charging policies vary among jurisdictions – some jurisdictions have pre-charge screening by prosecutors while others do not. The way victim services are organized by jurisdictions also varies due in part to resource availability.

Readers are referred to the Methodology section for important caveats regarding the methodologies of the data sources used, as these may place limits on drawing definitive conclusions.

Recent improvements to data collection on violence against women

Following the 2002 publication, Assessing Violence Against Women: A Statistical Profile, a number of enhancements were made to data collection at Statistics Canada. This report adds important new information on criminal harassment (stalking) from the 2004 GSS, sentencing of spousal violence perpetrators from a special study of court responses, availability and use of victim services by abused women from a new Victims Services Survey, and detailed information on Aboriginal and territorial women, also from the 2004 GSS.

While these enhancements represent an important step forward, work remains to be done. Statistical data are not available to describe the experiences of violent victimization for some groups of women in the population. This report summarizes what is currently known about the prevalence and severity of violence against women in Canada, the impact of violence, risk factors, institutional and community responses, victims’ use of services, and highlights areas where further data development is needed.

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